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That extra-heavy load Instead of flying, Vladimir Putin prefers to travel around Russia by armored train (allegedly for fear of Ukrainian attack)
More and more often, Vladimir Putin opts to travel by armored train instead of flying. First delivered around 2014–2015, his customized express train has been in regular use since 2021, when the Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border alerted the world to a possible full-scale invasion. Meduza is summarizing what Dossier Center (Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s investigative journalism project) found out about Putin’s now preferred mode of travel, and who controls the elaborate logistics of transporting the president.
Russia’s president has been actively using his armored train since around August–September 2021, a source personally acquainted with Putin told Dossier Center. According to this insider, the custom train was last updated in 2014–2015, but Putin only began using it regularly just before Russian troops began concentrating near the Ukrainian border. (Another source close to the President’s Office confirmed this information to Dossier Center.)
According to the new investigation, Putin’s departure “can be spontaneous and unannounced.” Since the beginning of the war, around February and March, says the same source, the president often uses the train, especially to get to his Valdai residence.
The reason to travel by train, argues Dossier Center, is secrecy and security: while aircraft can be tracked using flight data like ADS-B Exchange, there’s nothing comparable for tracking the movements of passenger trains.
Visually, Putin’s train is almost indistinguishable from other Russian Railways trains, all of them painted gray with a single red stripe. Still, some things do set the presidential train apart. First, because its main cars are armored, the extra load requires a six-axis configuration instead of the usual four axes seen on regular passenger cars. Second, the president’s train has top scheduling priority: to allow Putin to move about at maximum speed and without stops, all other train schedules are adjusted to make way.
The train includes the president’s car with a bedroom and a conference room, another car for those traveling along, and a communications car.
The existence of the armored train has not been a secret. In November 2019, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev conducted a meeting in the train boardroom. Komsomolskaya Pravda then ran an article that explained that the express is formed from scratch for each particular trip, its permanent components being the customized armored cars, joined each time with ordinary cars with compartments for two and four people. The heavy armored train requires at least two locomotives, but sometimes uses three.
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The last time Putin himself had his picture taken on the train was in 2012. This was the older version of the train, which has since been updated. The Kremlin press service never published any photos of the train’s exterior. This was no accidental omission since you can actually distinguish this train by the covered antennae on its roof. These sheathed antennae were also visible on the train that inaugurated railway service across the Crimean Bridge in December 2019.
Dossier Center spotted similar antennae covers on another passenger train, pulled along by one electric and two diesel locomotives of exactly the kind mentioned by Komsomolskaya Pravda. Another tell-tale detail is the presence of cars with six bearing axes.
Some of the closer shots of the train obtained by Dossier Center show that it’s branded with a Grand Service Express company logo and website. Grand Service Express is a company connected to Yuri Kovalchuk, an old friend of Putin’s, whose various corporate structures manage Putin’s alleged assets, including his unofficial residences (like the palace in Gelendzhik) and several yachts.
Although Putin’s acquaintance who spoke with Dossier Center could not confirm that the Grand Service Express train is definitely the president’s armored train, he did point out the presence of the covered antennae and a car with a fewer-than-usual number of windows. Outwardly at least, he said, the train in the picture does resemble Putin’s armored train.
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